Home » Palestinians in Europe Fear for Safety as Crackdown on Speech Fosters Hate

Palestinians in Europe Fear for Safety as Crackdown on Speech Fosters Hate

Since October 7, Samira has been in a state of constant angst. Watching the news of the Gaza Strip reduced to rubble has left her sad, paralyzed, and fearful for the fate of the 2.2 million Palestinians living in the besieged coastal enclave. And, although the Palestinian-French mother of two living in Paris expected the Gaza war to reverberate across the globe, as previous wars have, she did not anticipate that it would affect her personally.

“I’m scared for my children, so I always take them to school and bring them back, even though they are teenagers,” said Samira, who requested that The Intercept not use her real name out of fear of retribution. “I worry that things could go from bad to worse.”

Samira said her son was beaten and accused of being a “terrorism apologist” at school for speaking about the Palestinian death toll and the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

After Hamas’s October 7 surprise attack and spate of civilian killings in Israel, hundreds of thousands poured into the street around the world to protest against the incipient Israeli military response in Gaza. As the intensity of the counterattack and demonstrations grew in tandem, France banned rallies and vigils in support of the Palestinians being pummeled by Israeli airstrikes. French authorities even went so far as to fine people for wearing the keffiyeh, a traditional Palestinian scarf. Marches in solidarity with Israel, however, were permitted to proceed in Paris.

Dual nationals like Samira, who holds both French citizenship and Palestinian Authority travel papers, are frustrated with what they see as global hypocrisy of claiming to stand for a liberal world order while silencing Palestinians who would voice frustration over the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which has been under Israeli siege since 2007.

People of Palestinian origin around the world who spoke to The Intercept said they feel as if they are being silenced both online and offline, rendering them frightened to speak about the plight of their Palestinians compatriots in Gaza, to display Palestinian national symbols like flags, or even to demonstrate peacefully. Meanwhile, the Gaza war specifically and the Israeli–Palestinian conflict in general is once again testing what Western countries have long said is a basic tenet of their societies: the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of speech.

France is one of several European nations, including the United Kingdom and Germany, where measures have been stepped up to silence pro-Palestine voices. In Berlin, on October 19, police made sweeping arrests of people participating in a pro-Palestinian rally. Like France, Germany has issued a protest ban that does not apply to those rallying in support of Israel. 

“I am afraid of hanging my Palestinian flag on my balcony because that would make me a walking target.”

On October 22, approximately 10,000 people attended a rally for Israel that was backed by major political parties. Held in front of Berlin’s iconic Brandenburg Gate, the event was even attended by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Nearby, a much smaller gathering, where people waved Palestinian flags, faced a crackdown by riot police. 

“I am afraid of hanging my Palestinian flag on my balcony because that would make me a walking target,” said Marwa Fatafta, a Palestinian human rights advocate and researcher in the German capital. “To have that feeling in a country where you see Ukrainian flags from every official and commercial building, people’s homes and balconies, it’s a message that you are not welcome here, that your humanity is not acknowledged and recognized.”

Fatafta explained that many people, herself included, felt nervous about speaking out or having public debates as the death toll in Gaza rises every day.

She said, “It’s McCarthyism in the purest sense.”

Protesters defying a German ban on pro-Palestine rallies were met with heavy police suppression and arrests near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on Oct. 22, 2023.

Photo: Michael Kuenne/PRESSCOV/Sipa USA via AP Images

07 October 2023, Berlin: The Israeli flag will be projected onto the Brandenburg Gate on the sidelines of the Festival of Lights as a show of solidarity. According to a spokeswoman for the Berlin Senate Administration, this was done at the request of Governing Mayor Wegner (CDU). Photo by: Fabian Sommer/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

The Israeli flag projected onto the Brandenburg Gate at the request of Berlin Mayor Kai Wegner on Oct. 7, 2023.

Photo: Fabian Sommer/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Europe’s Crackdown

Samira feels that there is no place for her and her views on Palestine in France. “It’s obvious: We speak different languages, and it feels like we are ‘out of place’ here — just like what Edward Said said he went through during the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, when he lived in New York,” she said, referring to the renowned intellectual’s book “Out of Place,” documenting his experience of dislocation and exile.

In France, home to Europe’s largest Jewish population, the authorities have been unequivocal in their support for Israel. President Emmanuel Macron swiftly condemned Hamas following the attacks and even made a visit to Israel, where he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and emphasized that the two countries viewed “terrorism” as a “common enemy.” The French president also proposed to widen the mission of the international coalition fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria so that the forces could battle Hamas in Gaza.

“Silencing Palestinians didn’t start on October 7,” Samira said. “It has been ongoing. Take Salah Hamouri, a French-Palestinian deported from Israel to France.”

Hamouri, a lawyer and former political prisoner in Israel, was exiled from his hometown of Jerusalem by the Israeli authorities in December 2022 for alleged security offenses against the state and ties to a banned militant group. In France, several conferences in which he was supposed to participate have been canceled, some after police deemed them a threat to public order.

In Berlin, home to an estimated 30,000 Palestinians, people wearing keffiyehs or raising the Palestinian flag have been harassed and arrested. Schools have been given permission to ban the iconic checkered black-and-white scarf, stickers saying “Free Palestine,” or maps of historic Palestine with the colors of the Palestinian flag: white, red, black, and green. In one instance, police officers stomped out a candlelit vigil with their boots, a video posted on social media shows.

“Anti-Palestinian racism is on steroids at the moment.”

“Anti-Palestinian racism is on steroids at the moment. The state is clamping down on every Palestinian expression, protest, and speech,” said Fatafta. “Over the past two weeks, there has been heavy police presence in Arab neighborhoods and streets to intimidate people and silence any public sign of solidarity with Palestine.”

Amnesty International said in an October 20 statement that “states have a legal obligation to ensure that people are able to peacefully express their grief, concerns and their solidarity” — referencing Germany’s ban of the vast majority of protests for Palestinian rights. 

Since 2007, Israel has imposed a siege — as well as an air and naval blockade — on Gaza, which has restricted food, water, electricity, and other basic goods. More than half of Gaza’s population lives in poverty and is food insecure, and nearly 80 percent of its population relies on humanitarian assistance. 

In the United States

Tensions over the Gaza war have also exploded in the United States, where many Palestinians say they have been subject to vilification and silencing, both online and off. Some expressed feelings of anger, sorrow, and pain, while other Palestinians in the U.S. say there is a sense of abandonment. 

“They are having to deal with a society and a government here in the U.S. which is only making things worse,” said Yousef Munayyer, who leads the Palestine–Israel Program at the Arab Center Washington, D.C. “Not just through their foreign policy but also in their complete disregard for the safety of communities here especially through the use of dehumanizing language which has contributed to anti-Palestinian violence.”

On October 14, a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy was stabbed to death and his mother was seriously wounded in an attack by their landlord in the Chicago area. Authorities attributed the killing to the mother and child being Muslim, and the incident, they said, was tied to the Gaza war. The boy, Wadea Al-Fayoume, was stabbed 26 times.

The sheriff’s office in Will County, Illinois, where the attack took place, said in a statement that “detectives were able to determine that both victims in this brutal attack were targeted by the suspect due to them being Muslim and the ongoing Middle Eastern conflict involving Hamas and the Israelis.” 

Nour Joudah, an assistant professor in the department of Asian American Studies at University of California, Los Angeles, said, “The U.S. government’s incitement has spilled over from the blank check for Israeli war crimes now to attacks on Palestinians and Muslims. From the brutal murder of a six year old in Chicago to constant unreported stories of threats at every turn of daily life, there is no sense of safety anywhere.”

There has been an increase in anti-Arab, anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian rhetoric in the media, on Capitol Hill, and across the country, said Rania Mustafa, executive director of the Palestinian American Community Center, an advocacy group in New Jersey. She put the blame in large part on the rhetoric of American politicians, media, and culture that enhances and promotes the dehumanization of Palestinians.

“The general feeling here is that Israeli life matters more than Palestinian life in all regards,” she said, “whether that be in the aid that the U.S. is sending, lack of politicians calling for a ceasefire, or failing to get U.S. citizens out of Gaza, and a lot of people are feeling hurt and abandoned.”

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 31: A protestor calling for a ceasefire in Gaza yells as she is escorted out of the room by Capitol Police during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on October 31, 2023 in Washington, DC. Protestors repeatedly interrupted the hearing. Blinken and Austin both testified at the hearing on budget requests, which includes aid money for Israel and Ukraine. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A protester calling for a ceasefire in Gaza is removed from a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing by Capitol Police on Oct. 31, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

“Doxxed, Targeted, and Silenced”

The United States has long supported Israel, diplomatically, militarily, and financially. Washington continued that support even as some human rights groups have said that the status quo in parts of the occupied Palestinian territories — including Gaza — constitutes the international crime of apartheid.

Many politicians have called for extreme measures to be taken against Palestinians in Gaza. “Level the place,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Fox News. “Gaza is going to look like Tokyo and Berlin at the end of World War II when this is over. And if it doesn’t look that way, Israel made a mistake.”

Mustafa said that, since October 7, she’s been fielding phone calls from Palestinian Americans who have spoken up about Gaza on social media only to be called in by their bosses and told to stop. 

“Every day, the community center gets calls from community members that feel like they are being targeted.”

“Palestinians are being doxxed, targeted, and silenced,” she said. “Every day, the community center gets calls from community members that feel like they are being targeted, whether that be professionally or in public or at school or privately in their own social circles. Or speaking at university and then being threatened with having their pay taken away and being terminated from university.”

On U.S. college campuses, student free speech has been stifled. On October 17, an elite law firm rescinded job offers for three students from Harvard and Columbia who were associated with letters that blamed Israel for the Hamas attacks. The Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee and more than 30 other student groups put out a letter after October 7 holding Israel “entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.”

The letter prompted a backlash that included threats by donors to stop funding the schools, while some students faced doxxing attacks. A conservative group retaliated by digitally displaying the faces of some of the signatories on billboard trucks around the Boston area.

Many Palestinian Americans say they feel completely abandoned by their country and fear rising anti-Palestinian sentiment and Islamophobia. Some point to public lack of empathy, while others say context to the conflict is absent from the predominant discourse in mainstream media.

“It’s difficult to describe the level of cognitive dissonance and inhumane language from mainstream media and the U.S. government that surrounds us all right now,” Joudah, the UCLA professor, said. “It is suffocating and demoralizing.”

“It feels inappropriate, despite our grief, to speak of our experience in the diaspora as we listen to bombs drop in the background of voice notes while they feel the ground beneath them shake.”

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November 2023